Two organisations are hoping to challenge a decision in the Court Of Appeal which looks at gender segregation in education.

The intervention comes after OFSTED used a new ‘British Values’ threshold to call out a Muslim school on its policy of separating boys and girls in class. A bold move by OFSTED, which has been accused by the school’s legal counsel of singling out the school to make a point.

Southall Black Sisters and Inspire intend to intervene in support of OFSTED’s findings which have been partially rejected by the Court.

A good summary of the case can be found in a press release published by One Law For All:

“School X segregates its pupils based on their gender. From the age of 9 to 16, boys and girls of Muslim background are segregated for everything – during lessons and all breaks, activities and school trips.

The school was inspected by Ofsted which raised concerns about gender segregation and other leadership failings involving the absence of effective safeguarding procedures, and an unchallenged culture of gender stereotyping and homophobia. Offensive books promoting rape, violence and against women and misogyny were discovered in the school library. Some girls also complained anonymously that gender segregation did not prepare them for social interaction and integration into the wider society. As a result of what it found during the inspection, Ofsted judged the school to be inadequate and placed it in special measures.

The school took legal action against Ofsted accusing it of bias amongst other things, and claimed that gender segregation did not have a detrimental impact on girls. Following a High Court hearing, in November 2016, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Jay, found no evidence of bias against the school but agreed with the school that gender segregation did not amount to sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. He went onto say that no evidence had been presented to show that gender segregation disadvantaged the girls in the school.

Ofsted is seeking to overturn this part of the judgment but the Department of Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, along with SBS and Inspire are intervening in support of Ofsted.”

The press release goes on to explain why the two organisations want to intervene:

“SBS and Inspire are intervening in this case because we believe that the right to equality for women and girls of Muslim background in this instance is being seriously undermined. We are alarmed by the growing acceptance of such a practice in our universities and schools; a move that we have also previously contested. In a context where all the evidence shows that minority women are subject to growing abuse, isolation, inequality and powerlessness, the practice of gender segregation cannot be viewed as a benign development because it is informed by the Muslim fundamentalist view that women are inferior and the cause of disorder and sexual chaos in society. If unchecked, the practice will give religious fundamentalist and ultra-conservative forces in our communities more and more power to define women’s lives. It will also signal the view that regulatory bodies like Ofsted have no business in investigating issues of gender inequality in faith based schools. We say that gender segregation amounts to direct sex discrimination and violates the fundamental rights and freedoms of women and girls under international human rights law on equality and non-discrimination.

Pragna Patel of SBS said: “Fundamentalist and conservative religious norms like gender segregation are becoming normalised in minority communities at an alarming rate. Separate can never be equal in a context of rising misogyny, violence against women and patriarchal control. Regressive religious forces want to implement their fundamentalist vision of education. They want to use religion to extinguish the human rights of minority women and girls to equality and self determination. We will not allow this to happen. We will not allow them to undo the strides that we have made for greater equality and freedom. Our struggle against gender segregation mirrors the struggle against racial segregation: it is morally, politically and legally wrong and the Court of Appeal and the rest of society must recognise this.””

The decision by SBS and Inspire to look carefully at gender based discrimination in schools is important. The Court of Appeal’s judgment is particularly significant, and is a must read for anyone interested in equality and education in general. It also explains the many elements in this case, which embrace legal, religious, education and gender issues.

The impact of  a successful challenge would be enormous. It would effectively bolster the view that segregation is discriminatory and a breach under the Equalities Act 2010, even if an educational reason for the segregation is given. A judgment in favour of this line of thinking would therefore affect all faith schools, not just Muslim ones. It could also affect single sex schools too, particularly if the school is considered to be sought after, for example because of academic excellence or geographic location, but only open to one gender.

In this case, the discovery of reading materials promoting violence, rape and abuse against women was a material factor in OFSTED’s poor rating of the school. It is this material which has no doubt spurred on Southall Black Sisters and Inspire to intervene. The judgment tells us, “one of the books states that a wife is not allowed to refuse sex to her husband. Another opines that women are commanded to obey their husbands and fulfil their domestic duties. Two books made clear that a husband may in certain circumstances beat his wife, provided that this is not done “harshly”.”

At its heart, this challenge feels like a challenge against extremism, especially when you read the quotes from Inspire and SBS in the press release:

Sara Khan of Inspire said: “I am deeply concerned about the rise and accommodation of gender segregation in our schools and universities. This is due in large part to the rise of fundamentalist patriarchal movements over the last few decades which seeks to reinforce regressive gender stereotypes and restrict women’s rights in an attempt to deny women full and equal participation in public life. I have seen first hand the damaging impact of gender segregation on women and girls. As a British Muslim woman, I call on our country and our judiciary to stand on the side of equality and women’s rights, at a time when illiberals and fundamentalists seek to do away with them.

Maryam Namazie from One Law for All added: “Islamists have become adept at using rights language to impose rights restrictions. Islamist projects like the niqab or Sharia courts are deceptively promoted as “rights” and “choices” when in fact their aim is to control and restrict women and girls. Girls in Islamic schools are segregated not in order to enable them to flourish but because they are seen to be the source of fitnah and male arousal from puberty onwards. Which is why they must be veiled, segregated, and prevented from many activities that are essential to child development. The court would do well to remember that when it comes to children in particular, there is a duty of care to ensure that the girl child has access to a level playing field and is able to flourish – sometimes despite the wishes of parents and fundamentalists.”

These women want to tackle terror at the root – through education, in our schooling system, which is allowing the kind of thinking we see filtered through the lenses of war and suicide bombs. They also want to provide every child with the opportunities they deserve. We respect and admire these women hugely for that.

Very many thanks to Nazenin Ansari for sharing the campaign with us.